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Beware of Green-, Woke-, and Corporate Purpose-washing

Should we believe companies claiming to be green, woke, etc.?

Key points

  • Companies often claim to be "woke" or support certain causes as a strategy to sell more products.
  • Consumers should check the accuracy of a company's stated aspirational purpose before supporting them.
  • Reaching out via social media to challenge companies on their alignment with certain causes can be powerful.

These days, every company has a grand statement about who they are and what they represent beyond the products they sell or the services they provide. Whether on their website, on their product packaging, or in their ads, companies will often include a statement relating to their aspirational purpose – be it fighting climate change, striving for social justice, or giving back to the community. Essentially, “buy our product because we care for [insert purpose here].

To be fair, companies usually mean well. They may genuinely care about the environment, diversity, or a number of other worthy causes…but in the end, they also care about selling products and services. Consumers, therefore, need to be discerning when it comes to deciding whether to make a purchase based on advertising language and understand that companies may have ulterior motives for claiming to care for a specific cause.

Sadly, there is a lot of evidence of what has since been deemed “greenwashing,” “woke-washing,” or what I would just call generically "purpose washing."

Greenwashing

Greenwashing has been going on for decades. Companies make claims of caring for the environment so that environmentally conscious consumers will be more interested in their products or engage in actions that ultimately save the company money (think hotel chains that request customers reuse towels with a plea to support the environment rather than framing it as saving the hotel chain millions in laundry costs).

These claims do not have to be explicit and in fact, greenwashing strategies that use implicit messages such as pictures of green landscapes that give the impression that a company is environmentally friendly without explicitly stating any actions being done to support such claims.

In my research with French colleagues, we found that simply featuring images and sounds of nature on a car company website was sufficient enough to give consumers the impression that the car was ecological. We are so easily fooled!

Woke-washing

Woke-washing is a more recently coined phenomenon, but follows the same general principle: Companies make statements about their commitment to diversity, LGBTQ causes (often called “rainbow washing”), gender equity, or other social justice movements mainly because it is the flavor "du jour" and less because they’ve historically or are currently doing anything to make a difference in these areas.

While they may appear noble on the surface, companies are also raking in billions of dollars in cash tied to woke-washed products, most of which go towards profits and not towards the causes they are claiming to support in their advertising messages.

Why do companies latch on to a cause?

If companies demonstrate commitment to a cause that their consumers also care about, they win major points with consumers. Alignment between a company's stated purpose and consumers' own values sells. Research shows that consumers' perception of a company or a brand affects their behavior. If a company engages in a cause that consumers think is valuable, they will be more likely to like the company and buy its products. This value alignment is especially persuasive when the cause is literally "close" to consumers. In my research into this topic, I have documented what I call "egocentric tendencies" – that is, we are especially thankful to companies whose social responsibility efforts affect us directly.

Given the prominence of purpose-washing in modern advertising work, what can we do as consumers to ensure we stay savvy?

Buyer Beware

Companies' public statements on social media and in advertising can give the appearance that they care about certain issues, but these may just be marketing ploys to attract consumers and gain their loyalty. Don’t just take their word for it. Look at what the company is actually doing. Are they taking actions to make an impact in the causes they claim they support, such as donating money to community organizations or changing their own business practices to make a difference?

Look at Their Track Record

It's relatively easy to look into what companies are doing and whether they are genuine about their claims. What may be less clear is their track record of supporting the causes they are now using in advertising, and whether they walk the walk as a company in following their own advice. Were they supporting this issue before? Are they taking internal steps to promote these causes within their own organization, such as advancing diversity in their hiring practices or implementing zero-tolerance policies for bullying? Review news articles and forums rather than simply taking a company’s word at face value.

Take Action

The most important voice for companies is the voice of their customers…in other words, you! My just-published research on brand contestation shows that brands are only as powerful as what consumers say about them.

Social media is an incredibly powerful tool allowing consumers to interact with companies in a way like never before. If you cannot readily find information about what a company is actually doing to support the cause they claim to support, reach out via social media or email to ask what they are doing to specifically address the causes they claim to be championing. If they don’t have a good answer…tell them so!

It's important for savvy consumers to check that companies don't just talk the talk but do indeed walk the walk, and some companies absolutely do. By doing our homework ahead of time, we can assess whether the companies making grandiose claims of supporting a greater good are actually engaging in meaningful actions or contributions that make a difference, and be more confident that our own purchases are in fact contributing to a better world.

References

Dietrich, D. and C.A. Russell (2021). A Framework of Brand Contestation: Toward Brand Antifragility, Journal of Consumer Research, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucab053

Parguel, B., F. Benoît-Moreau and C. A. Russell (2015). Can Nature-Evoking Elements in Advertising Greenwash Consumers? The Power of ‘Executional Greenwashing. International Journal of Advertising, 34 (1), 107-134.

Russell, D. W. and C. A. Russell (2010). Consumer Reactions to Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives: Egocentric Tendencies and Their Moderators. Marketing Letters, 21 (1), 65-81.

Moorman, C. (2020). Commentary: Brand activism in a political world. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 39(4), 388-392. doi:10.1177/0743915620945260Vredenburg,

Vredenburg J, Kapitan S, Spry A, Kemper JA. (2020). Brands taking a stand: Authentic brand activism or woke washing? Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 39(4), 444-460. doi:10.1177/0743915620947359

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